Category Archives: Fiction Contest Week

Fiction Contest Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

For the past two weeks, CIMSEC featured the top 10 stories submitted to our joint fiction contest with the U.S. Naval Institute. Through short stories and narrative fiction, authors explored the future of maritime security and conflict at sea.

From autonomous drone swarms to privateers, to AI admirals and undersea warfare on foreign moons, these stories envisioned ingenious scenarios and alternative futures. These stories help us gaze into the unknown and illuminate the unthinkable. Through these tales and narratives, we can hopefully better perceive what the future may hold. We thank these authors for their excellent and visionary stories.

1st Place: Bulldogs Away,” by Ralph G. Francisco

2nd Place: Exit Music,” by Ben Plotkin

3rd Place: Splash Twelve,” by Tyler E. Totten

Manned Unmanned Warfare,” by Ivan Villescas
Puddle Jumpers,” by Kevin P. Smith
Warfighting Second,” by Jacob Rothstein
Valiance,” by Daniel Lee
Thunder in the Lightless Sea,” by Jonathan French
Kraken!” by Jon Paris
Expeditionary Logistics,” by Jack Montgomery

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

Bulldogs Away

Fiction Contest Week

1st Place Finisher

By Ralph G. Francisco

Western Pacific, in the near future…

            The sea blazed orange as the sun set off the port bow, Guam’s rugged outline shrinking in PB 301’s wake. Ahead, LT Benjamin Bannon could just make out squalls forming on the horizon. “Good,” he mused, “we’ll need the surface clutter.” 

            As his four missile boats cut their way northwest, he reflected how weeks of attrition forced this course of action. He sympathized with the DDG caught pierside on day one. Her survivors were now digging trenches above the landing beaches. Like their great-grandfathers before them, the sailors of Apra Harbor were caught by surprise on a Sunday morning.

            There would be no immediate relief of Guam, nor could the island be fully suppressed from mainland China. A sizable portion of US assets were destroyed, but People’s Liberation Army strikes were not as precise, nor as resistant to countermeasures, as originally feared. Remarkable efforts by the Seabees kept damaged runways operational. As tensions across the Taiwan Strait rose in the preceding months, they even built piers large enough to shelter small craft in Guam’s sea caves. Replacement aircraft were trickling into Andersen AFB, slowly rebuilding air power.

            As expected, the peer-level war spilling across the Western Pacific degraded GPS, satellite communications, and the command and control flag officers had grown so accustomed to. This conflict would be one of short HF bursts, Task Unit initiative, and plenty of subterfuge. Meanwhile the PRC’s reunification by fait accompli was dangerously behind schedule. Dozens of ships were sinking in the Taiwan Strait, and twenty days of bloodshed had gained Chinese Marines just one tenuous beachhead.

            These setbacks forced PLA naval staff into a hasty contingency, seeking to deny Guam’s further use to American forces. A Task Force was ordered to sail east from the so called “Taiwan Exclusion Zone.” The short planning cycle and lack of an aircraft carrier infuriated China’s East Sea Fleet Commander, but the admiral’s hands were tied by the fortunes of war. This armada would still deploy powerful amphibious ships and heavily armed escorts.

            Ben dwelled on yesterday’s decision brief with Task Group 75.3. “It’s better for your boats to take the offensive than be annihilated during the landings,” concluded the grey-haired O-6, his weathered face deeply concerned. “I want you to have at least some chance. Shoot and scoot, this isn’t a suicide mission. Do you understand me, son?” he said, looking directly at the Patrol Leader. “Limited airstrikes will coincide with your attack, but forget any close coordination.”

            Ben replied in a professional, albeit subdued tone. “Captain, the sea state will be rough tonight, with a low ceiling, 10% illumination and three-mile visibility. They may not be able to launch Helos or UAVs for surface search. My height of eye is terrible, but if the intercept point is accurate, we might get into the Weapons Engagement Zone undetected.”

His recollections were broken by a buzzing through his Liberator headset.      

“20 knots over ground LT, increasing swells on the bow,” said GM1 Harold from his centerline station in the pilothouse. Five pneumatic shock seats recoiled in unison as the boat plunged through the waves. The four darkened craft ran at radio silence, each coxswain switching to NODs as the twilight faded. 

“GPS signal degraded, Inertial Figure of Merit 1, time to waypoint, 7 hours,” added QM3 Wilson, from his navigation console to Harold’s left. 

“Roger,” Ben acknowledged.

“Chief, watch turnover at Phase Line Green, have the off section rack out,” he ordered in a purposefully casual tone, knowing few would sleep.

He was responsible for 48 Sailors and four Marines on this patrol. Deep down, he wondered how many would return.


            The MKVII PB represented one of the few acquisition programs that achieved its purpose without gold-plating or delay. By 2022 it was clear that China’s naval build up had to be offset, and that America’s shipyards lacked the capacity to match them. In response, the Navy ordered 30 of these cheap stop-gap platforms. Designers favored a proven hull form, reliable Cummins Diesel engines, dual water jets, Furuno radars and other commercial systems. The 90-foot craft were heavily armed with one MK 38 25mm, one remote .50 cal, and several machine guns. Her main battery (and her true purpose) consisted of recycled ship-killers. Decommissioned cruisers provided the RGM 84 Harpoon missiles. Pairs of these dated but still deadly weapons were mounted on the fantail. Their forward-facing tubes canted up, just clearing the angular pilot house. A small fire control radar topped her stubby mast. Each crew consisted of just 12 thoroughly cross-trained sailors. She was simple, fast and ugly. Ben admired the grey, low slung vessel’s resemblance to WW2 torpedo boats. He wondered if they’d make the old PT squadrons proud.

            Coastal Defense Squadron Three deployed eight of these aluminum craft to Guam, just three months before hostilities commenced.

            The age-old tyranny of distance left Ben with time to think. The math was depressing. His fire control radar stood 15 feet above the waves, while an LHD’s flight deck stood at 90 feet. He could expect detection at no greater than 15 nautical miles. Subsonic Harpoons would require nearly two minutes to cover that stretch, plenty of time for a well-drilled enemy to react. To improve their chances, his patrol carried Switchblade loitering munitions, modified to imitate the Harpoon’s active seeker, making them, in effect, expendable kamikaze decoys. He hoped the drones would distract the enemy, but this mission was based on more assumptions than he cared to admit.           

            Honestly, the plan stunk and Ben knew it, but being trapped on an island left one with few choices. He prayed the rough seas would partially conceal his patrol from surface radar. His brief committed two boats (4 missiles) to a suspected Type 075 LHD. The 36,000 ton amphibious ship carried the most troops, rotary wing assets, and landing craft, marking her as the priority target. The balance of his force would prioritize an oiler or LPD. With luck they could score at least one mission kill, then beat a mad retreat. 


“I wish I failed Academy calculus,” Ben quipped over the internal net. “Sales life seems a lot healthier.”

“I should have been an exotic dancer, LT,” GM1 philosophized. Harold was his best Coxswain, and ironically the most prone to seasickness.

“No one would pay for that,” added OS2 Castro, the Communicator seated to Harold’s right. She volunteered at Guam’s animal shelters in her off time.

            After a dark and exhausting transit, the patrol reached their waypoint point at 0100. They idled their engines, laying in ambush, only using precious fuel to maintain station, bow into the seas. Fatigue and nausea would magnify the longer they bobbed there. Ben hoped his inertial navigation position was accurate enough, as cloud cover prevented any celestial fix. 

Now we wait, puke over the side, and try not to be rammed by an enemy destroyer, he joked to himself, trying to push thoughts of Bataan and Wake Island out of his mind.

“Heads up sir, three large tracks, bearing 330 true, range 14 miles, course 120, speed 15kts,” reported QM3’s steady cadence fifteen minutes later.

“Roger. Castro, pass that over IR signal light,” replied Ben. “Chief, set General Quarters.”

“I’ll get them ready, Sir,” said QMC Velarde.

            Ben watched the father of three descend the pilot house ladder, bracing himself as the deck pitched. “Q” had known war as a boy in El Salvador. Now he would see it again. He appeared outwardly untroubled by what was to come.

            The Lieutenant suspected the largest track to be the LHD, although he wished for a less primitive identification method. After confirming all consoles were dimmed, Ben grabbed his helmet and opened the overhead hatch. Cold salt air filled his lungs, his noise canceling headset muffling the wind. He lowered his PVS-14, a crisp bluish white phosphor image revealed swells and white caps breaking at six feet.

Visibility less than three miles. We may have a chance in this soup, Ben thought to himself.

“Nothing on thermal, LT,” informed EN2 Carrol from the MK 38 console, panning his gun camera.

“OS2, put this out over signal light: Execute to follow, line abreast, course 350, speed 20,” Ben ordered. “My element will cover track furthest right, 02 cover middle, 04 cover the furthest left track, standby to launch switchblades.”

He prayed silently as he watched each boat reply “Roger” via infrared light, visible through his night vision monocular. The flashing light drills were a pain, but he was glad for them now.

            On signal, each boat launched drones into the night. 24 grey cylinders unfolded wings and zoomed at wave-top level toward the enemy. They would pop up to 100 feet just as the Harpoons were launched. With luck some would draw fire, or at least distract the enemy for a few critical seconds. If the missiles struck, the drones could conduct Battle Damage Assessment before diving into the target. Three pounds of C-4 explosive wasn’t much, but could damage precious radars or communications arrays.

Ben consulted the faint glow of his Omega Seamaster, timing his launch carefully.

“This is Zero One, standby…” He broke radio silence over the encrypted boat to boat net, briefly un-keying his microphone.


            He clearly recognized three of his best friends as they “rogered out” over the VHF circuit. Each lieutenant would largely fight their own boat, their own little war. Endless drills taught them to coordinate with minimal radio traffic once things went kinetic. The four craft revved to full power, forming an evenly spaced battle line, beam to beam. Their sterns dug into the sea, bow waves forming in their teeth.

“Link stable, time on target one mike,” said QMC, eyeing the switchblade console, the “black hot” outline of the LHD growing larger in the FLIR display.

Satisfied with PID, Ben keyed his circuit, “This is Zero One, weapons free.”

In unison, the four FC radars illuminated their assigned quarries. By now, the lead ship was just 12 miles away.

“Zero Two, Bulldogs away.”

“Zero Three, Bulldogs away.”

“Zero Four, Bulldogs away.”

“This is Zero One, Bulldogs away,” replied Ben.

            Eight booster rockets ignited, spitting flames into the darkness. Fifteen-foot missiles lurched out of their tubes, stabilizer fins springing into position as the weapons shot skyward. Their exhaust illuminated the low clouds an eerie shade of blue, before they dove gracefully to the surface, skimming the sea at over 500 mph. The patrol turned in unison to starboard, forming a column, their water jets churning the sea behind them. Ben was satisfied with the skillful maneuver, one which they had practiced many times.


            Petty Officer 2nd Class Wu rubbed his eyes, straining to stay awake. His ship had been at battle stations for ten hours due to the air and subsurface threat, his Task Force zigzagging to avoid murderous U.S. submarines. War news was heavily censored, but rumors claimed many comrades had been lost to heavyweight torpedoes. Suddenly his console buzzed, a flashing symbol denoting an unknown fire control radar.

“FC radar bearing 160!” he announced. Just then six additional symbols flashed across his screen. “Harpoon emitter, multiple bearings south, strength six!” he stated, stress audible in his voice.

“Bridge, come to full power. Air, report status!” demanded LCDR Lee, the Combat Watch Officer.

“Five unknowns, bearing 160, altitude 30 meters, speed 61 knots,” replied the Air Defense Coordinator in a confused tone.

“I thought you said they were Harpoons?!” LCDR Lee barked, accustomed to shouting at his sailors in this manner.

            The exhausted watchstanders began to step on each other over the battle net. Confusion reigned for a few moments before Lee regained control, coordinating softkill and hardkill procedures. They behaved admirably given their lack of sleep. Four of the drones were destroyed by HQ-10 point defense missiles. However, their scramble distracted them from the four subsonic tracks detected ten miles to the south. Only two were defeated by ECM and CIWS.

            One Harpoon struck starboard amidships, 20 feet below the flight deck. 500 pounds of high explosive detonated a fraction of a second after punching through the hull, just inside the hangar deck. Aviation fuel lines caught fire while several Ka-27 helicopters burst into flames. Stacked ground attack munitions detonated while a second missile struck the well deck below. A few moments later two of the explosive drones slammed into the superstructure, wounding one sailor and disabling the air search radar. The crew had never trained for a conflagration of this magnitude, and would spend the next 11 hours fighting to save their ship.


“Two hits!” reported QMC Velarde, the boat erupting into cheers as the patrol fled the scene. Ben glanced at the drone display, just in time to see his Chief guide two into the flattop’s island.

The other boats reported at least one hit on the Oiler. The LPD remained unscathed. Its allocated Harpoons had either malfunctioned or were successfully distracted. Still, Ben could not believe their success.

“Castro, pass the word back on HF,” he ordered, not sure if they would live to report in person.

“WHERE DID THAT COME FROM!” shouted EN2 Carrol, his display filling alarmingly with the fighting tops of a warship. “It looks like an escort! We must have wandered right past each other,” he speculated.

Ben recognized the Type 054A “Jiangkai II.”

“It’s a frigate,” he said, thankful it wasn’t a Renhai cruiser. She was blocking their escape and closing at an oblique angle, just 5,000 yards away. “It’s between us and home, keep going, and chase the splashes.”

“Chase the what!?” questioned his coxswain. At that moment, the enemy’s muzzle flashed, visible as dark puffs on the black and white screen. Geysers erupted off the port bow four seconds later.

“Chase the splashes, aye!” GM1 responded, recognizing the ploy to make the enemy over correct.

“Enemy frigate dead ahead, prepping a Javelin,” called Ben over the VHF.

“SEND IT!” replied a familiar Texan accent, causing the Patrol Leader to smile despite their mortal circumstances.

“25mm open fire when in range,” Ben directed. “Get those Javelins topside!”

The deck rocked crazily from side to side as the Coxswain pursued the splashes, each salvo getting closer. Their pea-shooter was useless until they closed the gap. Maybe we can get under their guns, he thought.

LCpl Kowalski blindly groped for the exterior ladder to the fly bridge. Near misses soaked everyone as he shoved past gunners burdened by armor, PFDs, helmets, and NODs.

“Give me some freaking room!” he shouted over the wind and engine noise.

            As he climbed, he saw a missile streak overhead, narrowly missing the mast. Once topside, a fellow Marine handed him a green tube, which he attached with practiced hands to the launch unit, shouldering the anti-armor weapon made famous in recent wars. Taking a sitting position, he scanned over the bow, his buddy preventing him from tumbling overboard as the boat maneuvered violently. The green image of a forecastle filled his sight, his reticle settling over its gun turret. The “soft launch” Javelin flew out and hung in the air before its main engine ignited a few feet in front of the boat. The craft was moving forward at such speed that the Marines were actually burned by the rocket motor.

            Down below, Ben watched as the enemy’s FLIR image grew alarmingly larger, wondering when they would eat an HE shell. By now their 25mm was barking, spitting baseball sized flashes toward the Frigate. The gunner aimed his crosshairs to the left of the pilot house, his lead accounting for the 40-knot relative closure rate. His shells appeared to arch up and to the right, a few detonating around the bridge. At that moment, a dark streak crashed into the 76mm gun from directly above, explosions obscured the warship’s foredeck with debris and flame.

“His main gun’s disabled, CUT BEHIND HIM!” Ben yelled.

            The patrol swerved right, crossing the enemy’s stern at just 150 yards, plastering the Jiangkai’s port side with everything they had. Red tracers slashed out from each boat as they passed, some ricocheting off the dark water. Green tracers blazed back, streaking through the night. Through the portside window, Ben clearly saw Chinese gunners backlit by deck fires, some dragging their wounded shipmates behind cover.


            A blinding flash and blast of hot air knocked Ben to the deck. He picked himself up in time to see QM3 clutching his throat, the floor below slick with warm blood and broken glass. The lieutenant immediately placed pressure on the 19-year-old’s neck, studying the navigation console. “Base course 125. Get us out of here, Harold!” he ordered desperately. Castro, having just expended her entire remote .50 cal belt, jumped off her console and began packing Wilson’s wound with gauze. The short, violent, surface action finished as suddenly as it started. The four boats ceased fire as they cleared the frigate’s stern, escaping at flank speed into a squall.


            At sunrise, once inside Guam’s air defense umbrella, the patrol evacuated three urgent surgical casualties via MH-60s. The Marines sustained superficial burns, but were otherwise fit for duty. Ben’s tiny command docked after 16 hours at sea. Each boat was scarred by bullet and fragmentation damage, one even sporting a clean 76mm hole through the bow. The armor piercing shell failing to detonate against the thin aluminum hull. His AAR claimed one LHD and one oiler heavily damaged, with one frigate moderately damaged.

            Ben concealed a hand tremor as he choked down coffee and eggs, transferring lessons learned to his counterpart. The remaining boats prepared to sortie that evening. Strike aircraft landed, rearmed and refueled, the morning’s attacks taking an additional toll on the approaching landing force. Across the island, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen manned anti-ship missiles, SAM batteries, and fighting positions, bracing themselves for the coming assault.

Ralph Francisco served as a Surface Warfare Officer for over eight years. He deployed to 5th and 7th fleets on a destroyer and as a Riverine Officer on MKVI Patrol Boats. He is an avid reader and student of naval history.

Featured Image: Art created by Midjourney AI.

Exit Music

Fiction Contest Week

2nd Place Finisher

By Dr. Ben Plotkin

            Wake from your sleep

            The drying of your tears

            Today we escape, we escape1

            The music calmed her. She took a deep breath in through her nose and counted to six before exhaling.

            Her coffee cup was right next to her monitor, the only one on the ship that had never been used, she imagined. She picked it up and held it beneath her nose, imagining the smell of stale coffee. She had given up drinking it as a young commander.

            She surveyed her ships. Her command. Two dozen warships stretched across the languid sea, arranged in textbook formation. It was a sight to behold. It made her proud of her men and women. Proud to serve them. Proud to command them. She felt close to them. Many she knew well. She knew their families, their hopes, their dreams. She knew their unique strengths and weaknesses, all of which contributed to her magnificent strike group.

            Technically it was the Navy’s. But big Navy was far away. Out here on the open ocean it was just her, and it was her group. A reinforced carrier strike group centered around the USS Gerald R. Ford. Enough firepower arrayed in this small section of the ocean to destroy any adversary. At least it used to be.

            If she was making an honest assessment, she knew her fleet was old, aging, maybe even as some had claimed, tottering into obsolescence. Nothing is more harmful than self-deception. She was aware of these flaws. What once had been the crown jewel of the Navy 50 years ago, was no longer.

            It was old tech. But in the new Navy, if it floats it fights. And these were challenging times for the Navy.

            The war had been going on longer than expected.

            The war had not been going to plan.

            Casualties were high.

            Losses steep.

            At the current rate the Navy would be a navy in name only.

            Hence the moonshot plan, the last great hope, the master strategist had seen to it.

            But, the master strategist was a computer. Silicon intelligence, whatever they were calling it these days. It even had a rank. How could they give command to a machine? Machines could beat humans at games, AI pilots could out dogfight their flesh and blood adversaries, but this seemed different to her. To give strategic command to a collection of microchips and circuits seemed wrong.

            These were inner thoughts. Best to keep some concerns to herself.

            “What do you think of the plan Captain?”


            “Do you think this will work?”

            “Above my pay grade Ma’am.”

            “That’s the political answer. What is your real answer? It’s only us. Just me and you. We’ve worked together a long time. You’ve always told it to me straight before.”

            “I think this will be our last cruise Admiral.”

            “Then let’s make it a good one. One for the books,” she said.



            Pack and get dressed.

                        Before your father hears us.

                                    Before all hell breaks loose.



            The Battle of Leyte Gulf. A great victory for the Navy. Perhaps the last great victory. A big gun victory where T’s were crossed and the enemy annihilated. There had been Halsey’s reckless dash north in pursuit of Ozawa’s carriers. A decision that left the backdoor open, and had it not been for the bravery of a small band of sailors, history might have gone another way.

            Ozawa’s carriers were bait, and Halsey had bitten.

            Now her ships were the bait.

            “We’ve been spotted,” said the Captain. “Enemy long-range strike drones have seen us. It won’t be long now.”

            She had trained herself to ignore her emotions. Emotions didn’t help with decisions. Emotions clouded judgment. And they need her sharpest judgement. Her best decision and command-making abilities. This fight would be like none of the others before. If this was going to be her last fight, then it was going to be the best she had to offer. But, it wasn’t herself she was concerned about. She thought of the Captain’s twin daughters. They were graduating from college this week. She wondered if he would ever see them again.

            The plan called for her strike group to be found, and they had been.

            Now came the hard part. She had to act like this was the main element, to launch all she had in stopping the invasion flotilla. The enemy would react like they had always reacted, with speed, tenacity and overwhelming firepower.

            The plan was for them to soak up all the missiles and the attention of the escort forces. If they behaved like they had before, she could expect the full force directed against them. Air, surface, submersible, and satellite weapons would all be heading their way with the simple objective of complete obliteration. In past encounters, even vessels that had been disabled and beyond any kind of battlefield impact had been hunted down and finished off—the executioner delivering the coup de grâce. There would be no mercy, no surrender, no going backwards.

            While her task force lured the attention of the enemy, the underwater wolfpack and island-based allied small ship swarms would strike the depleted and surprised escorts and drive them into the jaws of the waiting Marine littoral combat teams.

            Was it a good plan?

            Would it work?

            The AI admiral gave it a 63% probability of degrading the invasion force enough to prevent its success. She hadn’t asked what the odds were for the survival of her group.

            She took once last whiff of the empty coffee cup.

            “Launch all squadrons,” she said to the Captain. “Let everyone know the time has come. I expect everyone to do their duty.”




Keep breathing

Don’t lose your nerve

I can’t do this alone

            She stood braced against the bulkhead in the combat information center, her attention divided amongst the myriad of screens.

            Short, clipped words registered, but did not affect her.

            “Vampire inbound!”

            “Vampire inbound!”

            “Vampire inbound!”

            The calls kept coming. One part of her was monitoring the progress of the strike squadrons. Too soon their stilted calls subsided, and went silent.

            A terrifying shudder cracked through the room throwing sailors from their chairs. The acrid smell of smoke blanketed them, then was quickly dispersed by the ventilation system.

            The Captain handed her the secure communication handset.

            “It wants to talk to you,” he said.

            “Now?” She was incredulous. “A bit occupied.” How could this machine want to talk to her now of all times, in the midst of the fight for her survival.

            “It says it is urgent, for you only.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw the video feed from the overhead control drone as an outer frigate was struck by a missile and broke in half. “God help us all,” she said in a whisper that she hoped only she had heard.

            She took the handset. “I am fighting for our lives. What is it?”

            According to the Navy the machine was an admiral and outranked her. A part of her realized that she would never have addressed a human superior in such a manner, but she was done pretending to be nice to the machines, the emotional trauma of watching her sailors dying was too difficult to subsume. The ships that remained of her mauled group had just completed their planned northward turn. The Captain had called it a flank speed retrograde maneuver. She had called it something else, something that would not make it into the logbook.


            Sing us a song

                        A song to keep us warm

                                                There’s such a chill

                                                                        Such a chill


            “It’s changing the plan.” She tried to keep her voice calm for the Captain. Never show your fear, never let them see the emotions beneath. But the Captain had known her too long, she could tell that he could hear. “It wants us to reverse course and attack the remaining enemy fleet.”

            “Attack them with what?” The Captain couldn’t contain his incredulousness. “We launched all our missiles, the tubes are empty. Our air defense systems are nearly depleted, our planes are all gone, we have no remaining offensive drone assets. We’ve just managed to put a bit of room between us, and might, just might make it out of here with the ships we have left.”

            “It wants us to change course and charge towards them with all due haste.”

            “So we can engage them with our deck guns?”

            “They still work, don’t they?” The Admiral smiled. What else could she do.

            “Boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,” muttered the Captain.

            “That’s the idea,” said the Admiral.

            “For what reason? We’ve fulfilled our duty. We acted as decoy, we hit them with all we could, for God’s sake we’ve lost half our ships, hundreds are already dead. Does it want us to all to die? For what? For Glory?”

            “For victory,” said the Admiral. Her tone was flat. Her voice tired.

            “Did it give a reason?”

            “It says revised simulations indicate that continuing to have our fleet engage the enemy, will confuse them further, increase the odds of the main effort in destroying the invasion forces.”

            “I find that hard to believe. There’s nothing more we can add to this fight. Our deaths won’t serve any purpose.”

            “It seems our admiral sees it differently,” she said. “But for what’s it’s worth I agree with you. I can’t see how letting ourselves be destroyed will help.”

            “Question the orders, tell this machine that we are people not disposable hardware. We have lives, families, homes. Can it understand that?”

            “Do you think questioning that thing will do any good? Change anything? But for what it is worth, I tried. I asked, I pleaded. I stooped to pleading with a computer. Pleading with a machine for the life of my sailors. But it simply acknowledged my concern and reiterated the orders.”

            The Captain didn’t say anything for a long moment. From just outside the door she heard the reactor casualty alarm sound.

            “What do you recommend then captain?”

            The Captain glanced over his shoulder, turned back to the Admiral and finally said, “I recommend we maintain present course and speed.”

            “You think we should disobey the order?”

            “It’s not a lawful order. This machine is asking us to go on a kamikaze run, from which none of us will return.”

            The admiral was silent for a moment. Listening to the cacophony swirl around her. “If it were a human admiral giving us the order, would you feel the same way?” she finally said.

            “No human would ever give such an order.”

            “Maybe that’s the point,” she said. “When computers mastered chess, they made moves no human ever thought of. They always won.”

            “Respectfully Ma’am, this is not a game. This is as real as it gets”

            “But maybe this supercomputer, this intelligent machine, this whatever it is, can see possibilities that are beyond our recognition, beyond our imagination. What if we are the crucial element upon which hangs victory and defeat? What if we are the queen sacrifice just before the mate?”

            It was difficult for the Captain to contain his rising frustration. “I think that you and I see things in a similar way. We’ve never trusted these machines they put over us. Their cold calculations and algorithms. There is no thought of human life, of the men and women who fight and die at their command, they only care about one thing.”

            “They care about winning,” said the Admiral.

            “Are the deaths of all our sailors worth a few percentage points in a simulation? We’ve done our duty for country and Navy, now let’s do our duty to the men and women we still have under our command. I’d like for some of them to see home again.”

            “I’d like that too,” the Admiral said quietly.


            And you can laugh a spineless laugh

                        We hope your rules and wisdom choke you

                                    Now we are one in everlasting peace

                                                We hope that you choke, that you choke



For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of her life above and beyond the call of duty as the commander of Carrier Strike Group 7. The last carrier strike group that fought at the Second Battle of Leyte Gulf. Admiral Nishimura was the first to engage the Chinese fleet. Despite being outclassed and outnumbered by an enemy vastly superior in force and firepower, she directed a combined sea and air assault upon the enemy escorts. Her ships were first to damage substantial elements of the Chinese Philippine invasion force. Originally Carrier Strike Group 7 was tasked with a diversionary role, but due to her skill and vision she was able to outfight and outmaneuver the vast swarms of enemy combatants that converged upon her position.

Undaunted by the severe damage sustained to her command ship, the USS Gerald R. Ford early in the engagement, she was able to continue to harass the Chinese and occupy their attention, allowing the successful counterattack by the dispersed remnants of the fleet, which drove the invasion fleet onto the waiting spears of the littoral Marines upon which they were impaled. The victory at Leyte came with a high cost. Admiral Nishimura and her entire command were lost at sea. The last witness accounts speak of a severely burned Admiral Nishumra pushing an officer through a hatch towards safety, before being engulfed by an explosion. Her sacrifice and valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle is an inspiration to all who served with her.

Ben Plotkin is a physician in southern California. He can be reached at


1. Exit Music (For A Film), Radiohead, written by Philip Selway, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke.

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

Splash Twelve

Fiction Contest Week

3rd Place Finisher

By Tyler E. Totten

October 10th – 1240
M/V Liberty Georgia
Western Pacific, east of Japan

The tone spurred wakefulness, causing him to sit bolt upright and grab for his comm.

He managed to settle his augmented reality headset into place as the bright cabin lights snapped on. He forced himself not to squint long enough for the retinal scanners to verify his identity. While he was well practiced in navigating the interface, the offending message immediately came to the forefront, overriding his typical loading preferences.

“The fuck…” He breathed, staring at the orders for a moment before rising from bed. A glance at the time showed him he was getting shorted an hour of sleep, but nothing to be done about it now. He pulled up their current position and the comm.

“Bridge here Captain.” 3rd Mate Siemens responded at once.

“Kayla, sending updated nav plan. Please implement immediately.”

“Yes Captain, right away. Did we pick up another job?”

“Sort of, fill you in later.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Captain Collins dressed quickly and stepped into the p-way, confirming the location of Chief Mate Cota on his augmented reality display as he walked, finding him instructing the deck cadet on powered capstan maintenance at aft mooring. Seeing him approach, Cota patted the man on the back and walked over to the shade provided by the step of the aft container deck. They were light on this leg, carrying mostly empty boxes up forward.

“Captain, wasn’t expecting to see you back here,” Carlos said, wiping his hands on a rag before shoving it back into his coveralls. “Did I miss a call?”

“No, figured I’d come back and talk in person.” Collins smiled as his Chief Mate settled his headset back into place. Carlos had the habit of pushing the headset out of place when he was giving out instructions to his people, occasionally missing low priority calls.

“We just got an activation order.” Carlos raised an eyebrow at that as the captain continued. “As soon as we pull into Yokohama, they’re supposedly going to have our Navy augment and load out.”

“You thinking another fuck up?” Carlos asked, referencing the mistaken activation of one of their sister ships, Liberty Ohio, months back. The program officer had been relieved of command, lack of confidence and all that, making Collins glad he was just a reserve commander these days, not chasing his next up-or-out promotion.

“Who knows, if so they’ve decided to double down instead of cancel. I’ve started to see manifests rolling in, looks like a serious loadout.” 

October 11th – 0900
M/V Liberty Georgia
Yokohama, Japan

Collins drummed the bridge wing as he watched the cranes work, lifting Liberty program modules into his container hold. The Liberty program had been created to serve as a surge naval capacity, producing containerized missile modules, VLS, UNREP and FAS gear, hangars, and other hardware that locked into standard container locks and lashing systems or replaced hatch covers. Stored across US and allied ports around the Indo-Pacific, they could be quickly loaded onto any containership, turning it into a Distributed Maritime Operations asset. Once networked, naval vessels and joint force aircraft could provide targeting and call on their weapons as needed. Liberty Georgia and her sister ships had been constructed in US shipyards, largely as a jobs program, but also to secure US flagged ships under contract for national contingency operations. With sixteen ships built already and two per year floating out of the yards, it was the largest commercial buildup in decades. Collins and his crew were largely specially-designated naval reservists, typically activated twice a year along with their ship. To be activated twice in three months was…unusual.

“Captain?” Kayla poked her head out. “Navy crew augment is here.”

“Thank you, Kayla. It’ll be a shame to lose you, but at least you’ll get some paid leave in Japan.”

“I’ll miss you all of course, but happy enough to not be aboard with those.” Kayla gestured to the 32-cell MK-41 module being lowered into Number Two Hold. She wasn’t a naval reservist, an exception on the crew. Collins just nodded as she ducked back inside and frowned back out as his ship was loaded with a decidedly lethal cargo. 

October 16th – 0500
M/V Liberty Georgia
Balabac Strait

It wasn’t a training mission, that much was clear.

Collins glanced across the water, his headset adding details to the convoy assembled around him including four Libertys. Just ahead, USS Constellation led the formation, her radar active and on the lookout for any PLAN snoopers. Her Seahawk was further ahead, just on the horizon, dropping a fresh sonobuoy chevron. His own ship had been assigned a pair of Romeos that had just touched back down. They’d driven away a Yuan in the night, lashing her with active pings from their dipping sonars.

Collins was still unsettled. His new XO, LCDR Serena Hill had digitally hand-carried their orders. Constellation, supported by USS Pittsburgh, and the convoy were to move north from the Sulu Sea, after traveling down the eastern coast of the Philippines, and bring additional hardware to Taiping Island. The ROC had given the green light to land. A Marine Littoral Regiment out of Singapore had already jumped across, landing their anti-ship and SHORAD on the island. Political rhetoric was heating up to a boil and the Liaoning battlegroup had pushed into the area. The Chinese carrier-borne aircraft had been making aggressive moves in the convoy’s direction, though without actually shooting. The Washington battlegroup was steaming in the Celebes Sea, but Collins didn’t expect her to stay there long. That pond was too cluttered, though commercial traffic was already rerouting clear of this whole area. Everything seemed to be spiraling and for the life of him, Collins couldn’t figure out what the diplomatic types were doing. He just hoped they’d be able to resolve things before the real shooting started. If the convoy wasn’t turned around soon, it seemed shooting would be inevitable. A hundred or so Marines and their gear were problematic enough. Nearly two dozen ships and hundreds more US personnel on PRC claimed territory, at the request of the Taiwanese government, would be something else.

“All ships, all ships, expect imminent action. Command indicates PLAAF bomber sortie from Hainan on a southeasterly heading.”

“Lieutenant Nixon, let’s lean into it. Get everybody up and prepare to support Constellation. I expect they’ll be needing our missiles if those bombers come this way. And make sure the Safe is good to go.” 

October 16th – 0648
M/V Liberty Georgia
South China Sea

“Well, they’re coming for us,” Serena remarked.

“Indeed.” Collins glared at the tactical display as twenty supersonic missiles tracked for them, visible thanks to the networked sensor feeds from Constellation and airborne ISR. He was just glad the strike commander had decided their group of merchants and only two ‘real’ warships weren’t worth their full missile load. Precision missiles were a precious commodity. He glanced around the armored CIC where they all stood, one of many things loaded in Yokohama. From here, they could control the entire ship and the heavy armor around them was supposed to protect them from anything save a direct hit. Given the commercial nature of the rest of the ship, anywhere else would not be particularly safe under fire. There was a second module in the bow, containing the rest of the crew and providing some redundancy for the weapons control. Liberty Georgia didn’t have any ability to self-target, beyond her SeaRAM, but there was still a human aboard in-the-loop for every launch.

“Commander Hill, please unlock the safeties on our weapons. Let’s make sure we’re ready to answer mission tasking.”

“Yes sir, unlocking weapon safeties.”

Aft of the house, SeaRAM came to life, manually tracking to the north, though still safed. Floating IR decoys were dumped overboard to float in the waters, obscuring the tactical picture. Around her, the other ships prepared themselves as well. Liberty California, another of their sister containerships, lofted her decoy blimps. The blimps RF units and radar reflectors were going to work to become appealing targets. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, launched her AEW Osprey, quickly transitioning and clawing hard for altitude. The operators fired up her miniature but powerful radar, feeding the data into the net. The Osprey needed to get astern of the group to ensure she wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire.

“Captain, Constellation requesting direct fire control.”

“Give it to them. Fire Control, you are seconded to Constellation.” They didn’t have all that many missiles but most of what they did were Standards. Almost immediately after the encrypted command link was confirmed, orders came across. Six SM-2s roared away from the ship, speeding downrange in loose formation. They were joined by missiles from two other Libertys in the group. Collins could see they were all SM-2s. Constellation held fire herself, retaining her full missile load. Minutes passed and both clusters of missiles ate the distance rapidly, the Chinese group unaware of the approaching danger. While the SM-2s had only half the numbers and a small cross section to target, they were still able to down eight inbounds. The survivors were undeterred, pressing on and beginning to spread as they approached the convoy.

“Point defense free,” Collins ordered, freeing SeaRAM to engage any missiles coming for Georgia. As he did, Pittsburgh’s launcher opened up, sending a salvo of two RAMs. Constellation fired in her own defense as two missiles homed on her radar. Liberty California’s decoys attracted four more.

The sigh of relief was audible, though Collins couldn’t tell from who, as the missile tracking Georgia was downed. Liberty Nevada was less lucky, her SeaRAM having managed only to engage the third successfully. RAM winged the second but not in time, the missile still detonating in her superstructure.


The untouched missile struck amidships, tipping down into the deck and burying deep into the hull before detonating next to the MK 41. Secondary explosions ripped through the ship and Collins grimaced imagining the shearing metal. On the port bridge camera, he saw the ship falter, engine dying as systems failed under the shock. The entire ship shuddered to a halt and a torrent of seawater rushed into the cargo holds perforated by secondary explosions.

Collins saw the reports on the net, extensive fire and flooding. No deaths reported but numerous injuries. Everyone had been inside a Safe. The hits on Nevada were unfortunate, but all told they had come through mostly intact. If that was all they had to deal with, they might complete their mission and get out alive.

“Submerged contact, bearing one-eight-five. Range, ten miles. Constellation says Yuan-class making turns for six knots.” Collins silently cursed his premature celebration as the warning came over the net, Constellation’s tail making the detection.

Constellation’s captain wasted no time ordering California, the closest ASROC-armed ship, to launch on the submerged contact. A moment later, orders came for a Seahawk to get airborne. Two ASROC erupted from California, speeding downrange and undergoing rapid disassembly upon reaching the target, their torpedoes bracketing the submerged contact. Simultaneously, shapes burst from the water.

“She launched, inbound missiles.”

The Yuan launched a triplet of anti-ship missiles as she detected the torpedoes bracketing her, aborting further launches. The submarine went to emergency but it was far too late. The MK 54 torpedo to port found her before completing the first search circle, tracking into the submarine’s stern near the prop. Its partner followed a moment later to finish off the wounded boat even as her crew tried in vain to emergency blow.

In the meantime, on the surface, four ships scrambled to react to the threat in their midst. Two of the missiles found the already-damaged Nevada, tearing into her stern section and crumpling shell plating. The third found itself coming in nearly broadside on Georgia.

“Hard to port, bring up the thruster,” Collins ordered, trying to unmask SeaRAM but knowing it was too late, even though it was barely masked. The warning gong sounded, the XO hitting the bell on instinct as she realized they couldn’t avoid the hit. Before the first tone even finished, it struck. Everyone grabbed their console to ensure they kept their footing. Collins noted the shock wasn’t as large as he’d expected. Liberty Georgia displaced nearly 50,000 tons, even as lightly loaded as she was compared with a normal container load. The warhead just didn’t have enough to seriously rock them.


“Fire in Number One Hold. Sprinkler systems unresponsive. Bow fire monitor is working, the bow Safe has it working on the fire. Main power still online. Looks like we also lost a 25 millimeter gun, Captain.”

“Very well. Keep an eye on the flooding. We’ll reballast if we take on too much.”

He noticed his XO frown but she didn’t say anything. He knew she was familiar with the Liberty ships but it was still difficult, in his experience, for the career Navy types to not send a DC party when the ship was damaged, on fire, and being flooded from the efforts to extinguish. On these ships, not only were the crew supposed to stay in their armored Safes, but a ship of this size could take on hundreds of tons of seawater without issue. The containerized mission set they’d been loaded with was not even a quarter load for the ship. A bit of seawater in their forward hold wasn’t something they needed to deal with until after the fight.

Far above the captain and his musings, the AEW Osprey continued tracking the PLAAF strike force as they tracked back north, feeding the tracks into the net.

October 16th – 0731
Amphibious Strike One
Somewhere in the South China Sea

“Hello beauties, we’ve been waiting for you.” Commander Valerie Cunningham smiled as she viewed the tracks still being fed to them over the net of the PLAAF bombers returning from their strike. Her command had been sitting on the surface for more than a day, waiting for the balloon to go up. It had been a nervous day, waiting to see if they had managed to sneak into the area successfully. They’d come in on the deck, half the squadron acting as buddy tankers for the others. When they hadn’t been attacked by marauding fighters, everybody had relaxed a notch. The thousands of square miles of ocean they had to hide in had paid off.

“Fire up the engines.” Now, it was time for action.

Cunningham’s SeaMaster II roared to life first, twin engines thrumming with power. She maneuvered her aircraft about on the surface, the other two of the strike element following suit. The buddy tankers would wait for them. Her radar operator was glued to his scope, keeping an eye out for any sign of hostile fighters or indications that their prey had been alerted. Cunningham quickly got her bird airborne, still not over how beautifully her bird handled. And as the first squadron commander of the Navy’s seaplane revival, she was even giddier still. Many people had reservations or objections to the return of the seaplane and this mission was their chance to really prove their value. The program had been spun up quickly and she remembered being surprised how well the first aircraft had handled. As an updated version of the P-6M, the major changes had been kept to the minimum required to bring them into the 21st century. Started in the late 2020s, it had taken just three years to have a flying example. The aircraft she skimmed the waves in now was less than a year out of the factory. Two of her buddy tankers weren’t even certified to carry weapons yet.

The formation accelerated smoothly up to 500 knots but stayed on the deck. The low altitude sucked down fuel but kept them below land-based radars and the AEW orbiting above the Liaoning group to the south. Besides, the waiting buddy tankers would be there for them after the strike, remaining hidden on the waves. Glancing across her HUD, she confirmed all six of her AMRAAM-ERs were green. She couldn’t help but grin again. Despite carrying a light missile load to support the long-range assignment, it would be enough.

Even as the bombers came into range, the squadron waited. Cunningham had instructed them to wait, as white knuckled as they were, until there was no escape possible. The H-6 could accelerate pretty quick if given the chance and against long-range shots, if they firewalled and scattered behind jamming and decoys, some might get away. Cunningham wanted them all.

With neither group of aircraft radiating, they both were relying on external queueing and warning. As they closed within 70 nautical miles of one another and their IRST systems had a firm lock, it was finally time. She advanced the throttles, coming up to 100 percent thrust and pitching up into an aggressive but still less than maximum climb.

“Take your shots,” she instructed her copilot and weapons officer. Cunningham enjoyed the shudder as each of the missiles left her aircraft and raced south until there were none left. If they ran into any enemy fighters on the way home, they’d be relying on their two Sidewinders.

“Missiles away.”

“Round up the gang, lets head for home,” she instructed, pulsing the order to the strike element and up back to the buddy tankers via the LPI flank array. As the SeaMasters came around to their exit heading, the H-6s were scrambling to escape. They’d had only seconds of warning when their own receivers detected the inbounds. Two aircraft were gone even before they started to maneuver. Others survived moments longer, but only moments. In under a minute, the entire PLAAF squadron was burning and plummeting to the sea below. Now the whole amphibious squadron shared its CO’s grin.

“Splash twelve.”

Tyler Totten is a naval engineer supporting Navy ship programs including EPF, LCS, and DDG(X), with a deep interest in international and specifically maritime security. He is also an amatuer science fiction writer published on Kindle. He holds a B.S from Webb Institute in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. He can be found on Twitter at @AzureSentry.

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.